From the Taj Mahal to the slums of South Delhi
29.05.2010 - 01.06.2010 40 °C
John.......Our new driver, Arif, is a conscientious and considerate young man of 28. Much of his conversation is centred on his forthcoming wedding in October to a woman who, I think, he has only ever spoken to on the phone. He is excited about the whole thing and has already extended an invitation to us which, sadly, we must decline. By Indian standards he is an excellent driver. He drove us for the time we were in Agra and now that we are travelling through Rajasthan he is driving us again but more of Rajasthan in the next blog.....
We went straight to our hotel in Agra from the railway station. The Grand Imperial was, indeed, grand and imperial although the empire it referred to was less the British Empire and more the earlier Moghul Empire. The Moghul Empire was responsible for leaving behind it not just one but at least 3 buildings of such beauty that to see each one is a thing of long lasting joy.
In particular The Taj Mahal is one of a number of human creations that have transcended their country of origin and almost become the property of the whole world. Described variously as 'the embodiment of all things pure' (Kipling) and 'a tear drop on the cheek of eternity' (Tagore) and as most of us less eloquent souls that see it as 'gosh', the Taj Mahal has more hype to live up to than most other places on the planet. Its picture is everywhere, millions of people have visited it but it is only when you see it 'in the flesh' that its true magnificence and perfection hits you.
We set off early from the hotel. Arif collected us promptly at 0530 and we travelled quickly through the still quiet streets of Agra. We left the car, and Arif, at the entrance to The Shakjahan Park and walked slowly past a few half hearted rickshaw men, past the melon sellers and the monkeys, some with very small babies hanging on desperately, interested in establishing a one way relationship with the melon sellers (show me a piece of melon and I'll run off with it).
At this early hour the park was full of families enjoying the cool of the early morning, playing cricket, badminton, volleyball or just chatting away. Tiny striped squirrels scampered about the place and it was an altogether pleasant place to be. We reached the West Gate, paid the 750 rupees entrance fee, declined the guide, through the security gate (women to the left, men to the right) and walked the last few metres to the place where the Taj Mahal comes into dramatic view.
My first impressions were....it was much bigger than I had imagined....it was very white, a pearlescent, glowing white....and....it is perfect, flawless. The perfect symmetry challenges you to search out some error and, finding none, try even harder. The hairs stood up on my arms and the only thing that could distract me from this avid admiration was the dodgy looking fellow tugging at my arm saying ..... "quick sir, follow me". He took us on a commando style raid of all the key photo spots as the sun was coming up. He knew them by heart and found the short cuts from one to the next, each point designed to make the most of the rising sun on the towers and domes. We eventually paid off our rather urgent guide with somewhere between his Chief Executive Salary request and our more modest response and went back to the start to take our time.
I am sure there must be a special kind of hell and damnation reserved for people like Deepak, CPM, Mahindra, Karl and yes, Tracey and the hundreds of people of like mind who have felt, in their inadequacy, the need to etch their names on to The Taj Mahal and some of the other monuments we visited in Agra and elsewhere. The little storm cloud of anger passed over and we walked slowly around the lower level platform, looking out over the Yamuna River to the goatherd driving the goats along the river bank. I wondered, idly, what the Taj Mahal meant to him/her and the same for the village kids splashing about in the river. Elsewhere in India many of the local people seem indifferent to local monuments, almost as if their monumental presence is of a different world and nothing to do with them. Coupled with the grinding day by day existence The Taj Mahal is, perhaps, of and for other people.
A few monkeys had dodged the guards and sat on the lattice work boundary between the temple and the river and, in what the Hindus would point to as a balance, below us and to the right of the Taj Mahal was a humble little blue concrete Hindu temple. We walked past the Mosque (good to know that the Taj Mahal is closed to all visitors on Fridays except those coming to pray at the mosque) and the accommodation for pilgrims, before surrendering our shoes for a mere 20 rupees and climbing the white marble steps to the raised platform. At this hour remarkably uncrowded, we were able to amble around slowly, admiring the koranic texts around the entrance way, written by inlaying onyx into the white marble. Before the heat of the day struck hard and the crowds overwhelmed us we sauntered back through the park, past the, by now much more active touts, sellers of dubiously made things, monkeys, melon sellers and back to the hotel for breakfast....all that and it is only time for breakfast! We took many, many photographs. Beware family and friends!
In any other city our next destination in Agra would be famous in its own right. The Baby Taj, or more properly Itmad-Ud-Daulah is a predecesor of the Taj Mahal. Smaller than its grander and more famous counterpart, this mausoleum is noteworthy for the delicate inlaid stone work, white marble and red sandstone inlaid, from top to bottom, with semi precious stones denoting flowers, birds, wine flasks, ornate geometric patterns and the finest of marble lattice work.
In the evening we travelled across the river to watch the sunset over the Taj Mahal...it just served to show that in every light and every angle she is perfect.
The following morning saw us at the dramatic, enormous Red Fort in Agra. We should have taken a guide (if you are planning to visit then a government approved guide is well worth the 300 rupees or so it might cost you). From the high walls of the fort attention seemed to return to the outline of the Taj Mahal, mystical in the haze of a rapidly warming morning. The Red Fort, on its own would have been enough of a marvel for one day but in the afternoon we visited the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri, 40 kms from Agra and once the Royal City. Beautifully constructed from red sandstone, its major flaw was the lack of an adequate water supply...a fairly major oversight in a city of over 10,000 people plus elephants, camels, horses etc. That aside, the craftsmanship inside the old royal city was superb. The white marble lattice work in the Hindu temple was the most striking part for me...
...but for each delicate structure like these windows was an equally grand statement like the Victory Gate...
....towering over the town that has developed at its feet. The Royal quarters provide examples of precision masonery, requiring little mortar and making clever use of the palace structures to maximise coolness and breeze. Shady passageways and pools of water give the impression of freshness although on the day we were there it was blisteringly hot....
We had a chance to watch some local craftsment making inlaid marble stone ornaments, work tops, tables and the like as well as some hand made carpets, both produced by 'fair wage' local cooperatives. The craftsmen we saw at the marble inlay coop work at the Taj Mahal on Fridays doing restoration work. Many of them Muslim, their skills have been handed down generation to generation from some of the original craftsmen that came to India to work on the Taj Mahal when it was being built.
Time for us to leave Agra so Arif took us to the station where the train was an almost predictable 90 minutes late getting in (what became of the belief that whatever else is happening in India the trains still run on time?). We watched as groups of children begged on the station platform, some disabled, some with no apparant home....two boys of around 14 or 15 were sniffing the contents of a Tippex bottle to get a few minutes of solvent based oblivion from their miserable, feral existance. Fiercely terretorial and socially disinhibited, we seemed, apart from our monetary potential, almost as invisible as the Taj Mahal had to the goatherd. A shunting train had a small boy of 9 or 10 jumping on and off the footplate as the engine went about its work. After the grandueur and pomp of Agra's main attractions, this seemed like a re-orientation experience for the next part of our journey.
We were aware of a charity working in the slums of Delhi called ASHA. ASHA is supported by the New Zealand High Commission and we were interested to see their work and to see if we could contribute some time. To this end we met Paul at the ASHA base who introduced us to their work. The numbers are mind blowing. Over 4 000 000 people in Delhi (total population around 14 000 000) live in slums (that doesn't include the thousands living under freeway overpasses and other such places). ASHA provides help and support to over 400 000 of these people. We visited one slum in South Delhi and were really impressed by their achievements in the 22 years since they started. A clinic, schoolroom, Community Health Workers recruited from the local population and trained up, mains water, electricity. We were welcomed into people's houses...one room for a family of 8 with two teenage girls now attending college each day through sponsorship provided by visitors. We are hoping to go back for a couple of days later this month so more on this in a blog or two's time.
In the meantime lots of love and best wishes to family and friends. The next blog will be from Rajasthan. We are currently in Jaipur, the state capital, soon to head north and west through Mandawa, Bikaner and Jaisalmer, near the Pakistan border. I'll leave you with this skillful gent in the narrow streets of Varanasi using a sewing machine that my Grandma would have used.....